FERRISBURGH — More than a decade after Rokeby Museum officials first envisioned the concept, workers have broken ground there on a visitors’ center that will house an exhibit on the Ferrisburgh historic site’s pivotal roles in the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery movement.
If the weather continues to cooperate with general contractor Naylor & Breen Builders if Brandon, the roughly $1.4 million Rokeby Museum Underground Railroad Education Center will be finished by August.
Four federal grants triggered by one major private gift and followed up by other donations has put Rokeby within about $100,000 of the money needed to fund the entire project, a gap that Rokeby Director Jane Williamson expects to be closed without difficulty.
The second story of the building, which will have a footprint of 2,500 square feet, will house the museum’s permanent exhibit, “Free and Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont.”
Rokeby officials also believe the visitors’ center will significantly raise Rokeby’s profile. The nearest major museum devoted to the topic is in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the recent addition of a smaller historic site in Ausable, N.Y. will only add interest in trips to this area, Williamson said.
“You think of the Northeast as the place, and it is the place where a lot of these folks who managed to free themselves came to,” Williamson said. “And there’s almost nothing. There are no other museums or sites that are about that. And in the whole country there’s hardly one that is as good as Rokeby, between the documentation and the intact site and the huge collection and everything from the period so when you come and go through the house you can really feel what it was like.”
The exhibit will make use of some of the Rokeby’s treasure trove of primary documents from the pre-Civil War era, when the Robinson family, who were Quakers and active abolitionists, owned the farm property and welcomed slaves who had escaped from the South.
The correspondence of two freed slaves at Rokeby — Simon and Jesse — with their former owners will be central to the exhibit.
Simon fled Maryland for Pennsylvania when he learned his owner was planning to sell him to a deep-South plantation, where life was typically much harder. Jesse escaped from North Carolina and stayed at Rokeby for about a year. The exhibit will include letters exchanged by Jesse and his former owner in which Jesse offered $150 if his owner would renounce his ownership claims, but the owner insisted upon $300.
In a 2006 interview, Williamson said letters like these are rare.
“There’s nothing like this really in the whole Northeast,” she said. “There’s nothing that has our documentation, our authenticity, and the depth of what we have here between the landscapes and the buildings and the collections.”
Williamson said she and other Rokeby officials believe those personal stories will make an ideal entry point into a fascinating and contentious period in United States history.
“I think it’s really easy for anybody in the general public to immediately relate to an individual story. When you’re talking about slavery or abolition or antebellum America, these big subjects, how do you get into it?” she said. “(The exhibit) will put those individual stories into a larger context, because it was a very volatile time, between 1830 and the Civil War. I call it the war before the war. It was a crescendo of conflict that ended in a war.”
At the same time, when the center is complete Rokeby will for the first time be able to handle full bus tours. The museum now lacks rest rooms and can only offer guided home tours for about a dozen visitors at a time.
The visitors’ center will also have a reception area; tourist information for other local sites; a meeting room for special programs now crammed into the home’s living room, including concerts and classroom visits; a covered porch area to allow visitors to get off buses in bad weather; and a work area for museum volunteers and employees.
“We think it’s going to bring some long-term stability,” Williamson said. “We’re also going to become an important part of the tourism infrastructure in this part of the state.”
And more visitors will better help Rokeby officials get out the word of the importance of the site in the fight for freedom.
“When you have more visitors, you have more donors,” Williamson said. “I think people will be very surprised to learn what it is. You can see the house when you drive by, and it gives the impression of what some people might think of as a drab little house museum. But that’s not what it is at all.”
FITS AND STARTS
Truthfully, Rokeby officials had hoped the visitors’ center would have been built years ago. Early this past decade a foundation operated by Lois McClure gave Rokeby a grant to develop the exhibit. In 2003, Williamson said McClure was impressed enough to gave $500,000 toward the larger project, with a condition it be matched by 2006.
Three 2006 grants took care of that: $235,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a $200,000 federal Transportation Enhancement Grant through the Vermont Agency of Transportation, and $20,000 from the National Park Service.
Then the schedule and red tape attached to federal grants delayed the project until 2008, Williamson said.
Then the recession hit. One large pledge was withdrawn, and another was delayed. The project was called off.
“In 2008, at that moment, the world economy collapsed,” Williamson said. “We really had no choice at that point.”
But in 2011, more good news arrived in the form of a $206,000 Scenic Byways grant, and the project was back on.
Once the building is complete, Rokeby workers will install the exhibit. If all goes smoothly, it will be ready by October. But that is when the museum shuts down for the season, and Williamson said only a “soft opening” for donors, members and politicians who supported the grants is likely this fall.
“Then we will do a big splashy public opening next May,” she said. “Because if we do a big splashy public opening in October and then close in the middle of the month, then you just disappoint people.”
Williamson is confident people will not be disappointed by the finished product.
“When we take someone through the house we want to tell them the story of the whole site and the whole (Robinson) family,” she said. “But the big draw for people and the reason Rokeby is so important is the Underground Railroad. So this is an opportunity for us.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.